on August 9, 2005
I'm a big fan of alternative history-Harry Turtledove's Guns of the South got me interested in the genre. I'd read S.M. Stirling before (Conquistador, The Peshawar Lancers) and really enjoyed him. So when I started his Nantucket series, I was expecting a good read. Which they are, and aren't. The premise of the Nantucket series is that the island of Nantucket is inexplicably hurtled back in time to the Bronze Age. The Islanders must figure out how to survive and interact with this strange new world.
Dies the Fire is a companion novel to the Nantucket series. You needn't have read the trilogy to understand what's going on-it just lets you in on a few characters mentioned in the other books. Dies starts the night of The Event, when Nantucket disappears (tho' these characters don't know that) and suddenly anything remotely electrical stops working. Batteries die, cars won't run, even gunpowder won't explode any more.
The hero, Mike Havel, is a bush pilot flying a rich family to their place in Idaho when their plane just quits mid-air. He manages to bring the plane down in one piece, but the mother is injured pretty badly. After discovering that nothing works, the party sets off in search of help/civilization. They've got two things going for them-Mike is a combat veteran and knows how to survive in the woods, and the youngest daughter, Astrid, is a fantasy-loving Tolkien freak who has her own extremely well-made bow and arrows, and knows how to use them.
Meanwhile, in Corvallis, Oregon, Juniper MacKenzie, a folk-singer/Wiccan priestess is performing in a tavern when there is a blinding light, and then all is dark. Except for the fires flaming out of control from a 747 that crashed in the middle of town. Juniper, her deaf daughter Eilir, and their friend Dennis realize something very wrong has happened, and head for the hills, literally.
The rest of the book is how the two groups grow in size, try to avoid plague, cannibals, and mad warlords, and eventually come together. A pretty good tale of survival.
But while the plot is sound, the whole book felt strained. One of an author's goals should be for the reader to connect with his or her characters. And I just couldn't. I cared very little for what happened to Mike, Juniper, or any of the numerous supporting cast. I think the only one I really felt anything for was Astrid, and that's mainly because I'm a Tolkien freak too.
Also, I understand that, in a post-apocalyptic world such as this, life is going to be mean, nasty, brutish, and short. But I don't need explicit descriptions of this every other chapter (sometimes every chapter). Most of the people who die (and trust me, a lot of people die), do so in extremely horrific ways, which the author seems to spend entirely too much time describing to the reader. Between the cannibals and sadistic biker (bicycles, not motorcycles) gangs, there's a lot of raping, blood, and body parts. And chalk it up to me being a new mother, but I got awfully tired of hearing about children being killed or dying in other ways. Maybe once, ok. Too often, and I started just skipping whole sections of chapters. I don't read horror novels for a reason.
Finally, there's the whole Wiccan storyline, which after a while started to sound more like proselytizing than part of the story. All the good guys are either agnostic/atheistic or pagan, the Christians are all bigots, or lapsed. Even the sole Buddhist ends up joining Juniper's coven. As for the epilogue, that just got a little too out-there, causing me to ask myself, "Is this book about an alternative history, or swords-and-sorcery fantasy?"
In the end, I'm not sure I can recommend this book. It left a rather sour taste in my mouth and mind. The Peshawar Lancers, sure (at least, I don't remember it being this gruesome), even Conquistador.
But let Dies the Fire die out on the bookshelf.